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The Devil You Know
After not signing an edge rusher in free agency or selecting one in the draft, the 49ers’ brass went into the 2018 seemingly content with the players they had at the position, despite the fact that it was certainly the biggest need on defense and perhaps on the biggest on the team as a whole. Kyle Shanahan attempted to convince fans and perhaps himself that the in-house options were capable of getting the job done when , saying, “You’ve got to be pretty good to beat out [Cassius] Marsh. You’ve got to be pretty good to beat out [Arik] Armstead. You don’t just get guys. If you get them, someone else has got to get cut and we’ve got a pretty good group.” Shanahan was right about one thing, when better players are acquired someone gets cut; fast-forward one year and Marsh is the one who would wind up getting cut to make room for new arrivals.
The 49ers are once again applying “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” approach, this time to the safety group. After choosing to prioritize other position groups in free agency and the draft, despite a good group of candidates being available in both, last year’s group of safeties returns. Last season the 49ers started eight different combinations at safety in sixteen games and this year Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert and Marcell Harris will start in some combination.
Adrian Colbert started the final six games of 2017 and made the most of his opportunity, showing the speed needed to play the single-high free safety position and the ability to separate the receiver from the football, earning his “The Punisher” nickname. The 2018 season came with high expectations for Colbert (and the rest of the 49ers), but a high ankle sprain limited him to seven games (6 starts); however, things were not going all that well prior to the injury. Colbert’s play was, in a word, poor and as a result Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 93rd and lowest-ranked safety in the NFL. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Colbert would have company at the bottom of those rankings.
Like Colbert, Marcell Harris, was pressed into duty as a rookie due to injury. For Harris, whose development was slowed by an injury he suffered in his final year of college, there would be flashes of potential in his limited playing time, but his play was inconsistent, which earned him the second-lowest grade among safeties by Pro Football Focus.
Jaquiski Tartt has loads of talent and with his rare combination of size and speed has the ability to play both free and strong safety, but as the saying goes “the best ability is availability” and it’s his availability that has done in Tartt the last two seasons; Tartt was limited to just 17 games total the last two years. Tartt signed a prior to the 2018 season that runs through 2020, but the 49ers could choose to move on from him after this season.
Tartt’s high school teammate, Jimmie Ward also recently received a contract extension. The 49ers re-signed Ward to a one-year deal after the former first round pick played last year on the fifth-year option from his rookie contract. Ward’s return was a surprise to most outside observers; it would have been easy for the team to move on from Ward, who has managed only one healthy season in his career.
The fact that the 49ers willingly passed up the chance to sign Earl Thomas, who is the archetypal free safety for their defensive scheme, was a bit puzzling given that they have the resources, but you could make a reasoned argument given his contract demands, age and injury history that passing on him was the correct move, especially given the position’s depth in the draft. The 49ers had ample opportunity from the second round on to pick up a prospect who could compete for the starting free job but bypassed the potential of a draft prospect for the known quantities on the roster. The problem with the safeties on the roster is that they are becoming known for being injured more than anything else.
Instead of making a change on the field, the 49ers made a change on the coaching staff. Jeff Hafley, a holdover from the Chip Kelly era, is out and in his place is Joe Woods. For the past two seasons, Woods was the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and he brings with him an extensive background teaching zone concepts, (Hafley’s background is in man-to-man techniques) which the 49ers use most of the time. Last year, blown coverages and miscommunication in the secondary were at near epidemic proportions. Better and different teaching techniques could help solve those issues.
The 49ers are banking on an improved pass rush and improved coaching to help fix the secondary, but all the teaching techniques and quarterback sacks in the world won’t help the 49ers’ safeties stay healthy and even though the team has completely overhauled its medical staff there is no guarantee the players in question can stay healthy. As the proverb goes, “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Hopefully, the 49ers can avoid feeling shame at the end of the season.
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